Sunday, March 01, 2015

Avalanche Express

Lee Marvin (POINT BLANK) and Robert Shaw (JAWS) in his final film lead an all-star cast in this international thriller for 20th Century Fox. CIA spooks Marvin, Linda Evans (DYNASTY), Mike Connors (MANNIX), and — hilariously — New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath (THE WAVERLY WONDERS) are assigned to escort defecting Soviet spy Shaw on the Atlantic Express from Milan to Rotterdam.

Taking an enemy agent on a slow train ride across Europe sounds like a dumb idea, but Marvin’s plan also includes using Shaw as bait to find out who the mole on the train is. Like too many espionage movies, the story is both impenetrable and silly, though this may be attributed to the change in directors. Both director Mark Robson (EARTHQUAKE) and Shaw died during production of AVALANCHE EXPRESS. Monte Hellman (TWO-LANE BLACKTOP) was recruited to direct reshoots and supervise the editing, and Gene Corman (I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL’S ISLAND) took over Robson’s producing duties. Shaw’s entire performance was dubbed by a different actor.

John Dykstra created some of the visual effects under Hellman’s watchful eye, and the train miniatures are quite good, even though there’s no mistaking them for a real train. According to Hellman’s biography written by Brad Stevens, all of the special effects footage by Dykstra and Bruce Logan was directed by Hellman, though some, such as the avalanche sequence, was intercut with shots made by Robson. Adapted by Abraham Polonsky (TELL THEM WILLIE BOY IS HERE) from a Colin Forbes novel, AVALANCHE EXPRESS plays like a cheapjack version of THE CASSANDRA CROSSING with a slumming cast flailing to make sense of it all.

Look, anything with a cast like this is worth checking out — hell, it’s about time Joe Namath worked with Maximilian Schell (cast here as the Soviet killer in a ridiculous disguise). But even if the script had been more interesting, the choppy production and distracting dub job on Shaw (by Robert Rietty, who matches Shaw’s lip movements, but doesn’t sound anything like him) prevent the film from being successful. The action setpieces, when they occur, are good, particularly the big avalanche that not only threatens the train, but also allowed Fox to market the movie as a disaster flick. Gene Corman’s brother Roger produced AVALANCHE a year earlier, but Gene’s special effects are better.

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